Water week in Chicago

Greetings from Chicago, fellow Solutionaries! The following is cross-posted from LetsGoChicago.org. After Middleton’s post below, it seems there is a water conscious trend happening here in the Midwest. We are glad to be a part of it! Read on to learn about our take on water awareness and water conservation.

Molly and children in the garden during water week

The week of July 9, which focused on water issues, was so busy we didn’t have time for a mid-week blog post, but we have plenty of water-themed stories to tell. We kicked off the week by watching a documentary called Flow: For Love of Water on Monday. It’s about issues of clean water scarcity, and how the privatization of clean water sources by big business is hurting our communities and forcing people to suffer. It was shocking to see such a phenomenon taking place, but it energized our discussion of global water issues, and inspired us with stories of how communities have successfully fought for their right to clean water.

Participants showing off their complete sub-irrigated planter (SIP)

We continued to work with water Tuesday by making rain barrels out of materials that we purchased at the hardware store for about thirty bucks per unit, using large plastic trash cans. It was great fun using power tools, teflon tape, and various brass doodads to make a functional and highly economical water management solution that any home owner could easily accomplish. On Wednesday, we also made sub-irrigated planters from discarded 5-gallon pickle buckets that would have ended up in the city landfill. Instead, using pieces of copper pipe and a homemade soil mixture, we created cheap, highly efficient devices for growing huge tomato plants with minimal water usage! Check out the link to learn more about SIPs and the great work of Green Roof Growers.

Aquaponics Facility at Whitney Young Magnet High School

One of our Solutionaries, Anna Greenberg, shares responsibility for maintaining a small greenhouse and aquaponics facility at Whitney Young Magnet High School, where she is entering her senior year. Our team visited her school on Thursday, where she gave us a tour of the project and put us to work on everything from rotating compost to testing the chemical concentrations in the fish tank. It was a great hands-on learning experience to work on an aquaponics system which both produces perch, a delicious edible fish, and sustains a large number of useful plants.

Volunteering at the Center for Neighborhood Technology

We took another field trip Friday to the new CNT-Energy headquarters in Chicago, where we worked on their rain garden, which is centered around a massive elm tree. It’s a beautiful sight in the middle of the city, standing starkly between the office buildings on either side, and it soaks up plenty of excess rainwater, but the downside is the multitude of tiny elm saplings that need to be pulled out by hand.

After a couple of hours working and learning about their plants, we took a tour of the facility, which is still in the earliest stages of sustainable retrofitting but already buzzing with activity. Then we enjoyed a pizza lunch and a presentation from our partner in landscape architecture, the incredible Alexia Paul, who spoke to us about stormwater management issues in Chicago (especially relevant given the downpour that shortly followed – see her video of the rain garden in action here).

Moving dirt for the construction of our French drain

Overall, we had a fantastic week of learning and getting things done. My project team, which focuses on green infrastructure, finally completed the French Drain component of our first rain garden contract! We finished right on schedule despite the unbelievable challenges we faced, and I could not be more proud of our Solutionaries. Look out for an upcoming post all about our project (with lots of pictures)!


Expanding Team, Expanding Solutionary Vision

This month has truly been one of expansion!  The network of people working together to make Growing Food and Sustainability a reality is growing everyday, as is our vision for a youth-led, community-based sustainability program.  We are reaching out to our neighbors, engaging high school Ecology Club students, and exploring the idea of adding a third garden site at the Middleton Alternative Senior High (MASH).  In the process of planning our Summer Program for middle and high school youth, we are finding ways to incorporate a wide variety of sustainability topics, including composting, water conservation, reuse of resources, and people-powered transportation.  With spring right around the corner, it’s an exciting time in Wisconsin!

Expanding Team

In this early phase of our organization’s development, we are using door-to-door canvassing as a primary tool for local outreach, community feedback, and resource generation.  We set aside a few hours every weekend to walk around Middleton and engage our neighbors in a conversation about our project.  The response has been incredibly motivating!  We’ve met master gardeners, teachers, community activists, parents, and even a dietician.  We’ve compiled an email list of 149 people.  AND we’ve raised over $600 to support our work this spring!

Middleton’s Program Leaders, Gabrielle and Natalie, both served as president of the Middleton High School Ecology Clubwhen they were in high school, so it only makes sense that we would collaborate with this group of students!  The Ecology Club decided to dedicate their spring semester weekly meetings to help us design the gardens, start seeds and take care of baby plants in the greenhouse, recruit more high school participants, and plan an event at the high school to highlight our program.  What a great group of students to be working with!

Presenting to the MHS Ecology Club

We’re exploring a possible expansion of our program to a third garden site at MASH, the Middleton Alternative High School.  Since this school has more available land, we’re hoping to site our “farm-style” garden here so we can grow a wide variety of annuals in a row crop layout.  We think that this new location will be a huge asset to our program and to the students attending MASH.  It will provide easier access to our program for at-risk students and will tie-in perfectly with MASH’s upcoming transition to a project-based model of education.  Incorporating the gardens into this style of learning will keep them in use throughout the school year and will give students a hands-on opportunity to learn about sustainability and agriculture.

Expanding Solutionary Vision

We are expanding the idea of a “school garden program” to incorporate a wide variety of sustainability initiatives and opportunities for green business ventures.

We are building compost containers out of reused shipping pallets to compost all of the refuse from the garden and from all meals that we host in the garden.  We are also partnering with Bloom Bake Shop, a local bakery, to pilot a bike-powered compost service.  Starting in March, we will pick up their used coffee grounds and vegetable waste once per week, compost it at our garden site, and use the finished compost to organically fertilize the gardens.  If this project is a success this summer, we will expand our composting operation to include food waste from the school cafeterias and other local businesses.

Water conservation will be incorporated into the garden through daily water use practices (such as not watering the gardens during the middle of the day) and through the use of rain barrels.  A number of our workshop topics specifically relate to water conservation, such as how to conserve water at home and rain garden design and installation.

Growing Food and Sustainability incorporates art and creative expression through engaging projects and workshops, all of which focus on reused materials.  For example, we will teach students how to weave coasters out of old magazines and how to create beautiful mosaic frames using old CDs.  The coasters are also for sale on our website, with all proceeds supporting our program!  $12 for a set of 4.

The program’s reliance on bikes as our primary form of transportation guarantees that students will be involved with people-powered transportation on a regular basis.  We will transport all of the tools and supplies between our three garden sites by bike trailer, with students either walking or biking with us.  We will also deliver produce to the local food pantry once per week by bike trailer, and students will be invited to join us for this group bike outing.  These opportunities encourage individual use of people-powered transportation while simultaneously exposing our participants to the network of bike paths available within Middleton.

This summer we plan to pilot a raised bed home vegetable garden installation business at a local residence.  Community members who purchase this service will be provided with a custom-designed vegetable garden based on their needs, complete sourcing of materials and plants, installation, and instructions on plant care and harvesting.  We may also provide weekly maintenance for an additional fee.  The ultimate goal of this project is to train and employ local youth in work that benefits their community while simultaneously increasing local food production in Middleton.

Expanding into the Future

Last week we received three part-time participant applications!  We are looking forward to engaging these new team members in our work and to hearing their new insights and ideas for Growing Food and Sustainability.  Our goal for the summer is to involve 5 full-time participants, 5 part-time participants, and 5 high school interns.  If you are interested in joining our team, please apply online Applications are accepted on a rolling basis and stipends for full-time participation are available!